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Tier One Scholars develop cross-cultural language skills abroad

By Leah Scott
November 14, 2013

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Today’s workforce is more globally focused than in previous years and new employees often find themselves working with people who are non-native English speakers or working abroad for multi-national companies. Having cross-cultural communications skills has become a competitive advantage in many fields and the norm in others. Employers are showing preferences for applicants who have global experience or who can speak more than one language. One of the fastest and easiest and ways for students to learn a new language and develop cross-cultural awareness is through a language immersion program, wherein students learn a language in the country it is spoken.

Tier One Scholars at the University of Houston have the advantage of their Tier One Study Abroad Stipend to accelerate their language learning. During the summer 2013, juniors Abigail Comeaux, Jamie Aldakkour and Trenton Fuller undertook programs with Spanish Language Immersion providers, SOL Education and Kukulcan.  

Comeaux and Aldakkour both traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico, a beautiful town south of Mexico City in the small state of Morelos.  During her three week Kukulcan program, Comeaux took beginning Spanish grammar and conversation classes.

“I was fortunate enough to have classes all by myself where I received personalized instruction from the teachers,” Said Comeaux; although there were students from UH, France and Canada enrolled at the school. Even with an individualized experience, there are many opportunities to socialize. After classes and on the weekends, students typically have free time to shop, dine out, sightsee or study.

Aldakkour took upper level grammar and conversation classes everyday during her five week Kukulcan program. The last class changed daily ranging from cooking and crafts to dancing. Students could also participate in school sponsored excursions but Adlakkour soon began planning her own trips with the friends she made.


Fuller spent four weeks in Costa Rica with SOL Education, which also offers programs in Argentina, Spain and Mexico. Fuller took Spanish language classes with students from many other countries such as South Africa, China, India, Nigeria and Australia among others.  Fuller participated in excursions facilitated by the school through a travel agent during his free time.

“There were activities for all tastes, snorkeling, swimming in waterfalls, going to the beach, hiking to volcanoes, visiting national parks, ziplining...,” Fuller shared.


To get the most out of their immersion experience, students opt for homestay with a host family; however, some providers also offer dormitory or apartment living depending on the program country, length of stay and student needs.  Comeaux lived with a host family in the small Cuernavacan community of Acapantzingo. Their home was modest but comfortable.  Aldakkour’s host family’s home was pleasant and spacious. The host family provided transportation to and from class for her each day.  

Fuller says his Costa Rican hosts were like a second family him. “We ate meals together, went out together, and did things a normal family does together.”

Many students who study abroad often find it to be life changing. Understanding people beyond one’s own frame of reference is a journey of self-discovery and helps students break down the barriers of language and culture.

“We live in a very different society from most of the world…so it can be misleading to think that ‘American’ is all there is,” Comeaux said after returning from Mexico. 

“[Language Immersion] allows someone to observe a different environment, lifestyles and cultures in a manner that cannot be compared to reading about it in a book or watching a documentary,” Adds Aldakkour.

Fuller says he’s thought about his study abroad experience almost every day since returning home. “It was a life changing experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.” Fuller still keeps in touch with most of the people he met while abroad as well. “I feel that most of them will be friends for life. Lingual differences often [creates] barriers but these barriers can be torn down with a little effort and diligence.”


As a Psychology major, Comeaux realized that learning Spanish is an invaluable asset considering the Hispanic demographic and cultural changes in Texas.  Comeaux wants to become a licensed counselor when she graduates and currently works at the Language and Cultural Center at the university.  She is also seriously considering continuing her work with international students.

Dual Chemistry and Spanish major, Aldakkour, wanted to take written and oral communication classes in Spanish, and learn more of the vocabulary used in Mexico. Aldakkour, who is native Lebanese, feels being trilingual will make her a more competitive and well-rounded applicant for medical school. She wants to be a surgeon and knows that Spanish fluency will be an asset in communicating with patients.

Fuller also understands the importance of being multi-lingual in the medical field. He wants to be a physician and is working on a Spanish minor in addition to his Biology major. Since Fuller doesn’t have many Spanish speaking acquaintances, he wanted to be able to supplement his language contact with an immersion program.

“Studying abroad forces students out of their comfort zones, which isn’t a bad thing. It allows for development and utilization of cross cultural-communication skills,” He says.

All three of the Tier One Scholars recognize the benefit of having the study abroad stipend with their scholarship.

“Do not let this opportunity go to waste,” Aldakkour insists. “Definitely use it.”

The aid of the stipend helped offset the costs allowing Fuller to undertake a trip he would not have been able to take without the additional funds. “The investment one makes in their study abroad experience is just as rewarding as the investment they make in their education,” He says.

 “It is an invaluable gift that far surpasses the stipend amount,” Adds Comeaux.

Spanish Language Immersion programs through Kukulcan and SOL Education fit very well with the academic and personal needs of Tier One Scholars. The program lengths are very flexible ranging from 3-14 week programs (depending on the provider) and can be completed during the summer or winter breaks.  Kukulcan and SOL Education both have a long standing relationship with UH. They are among the least expensive language immersion providers available and much of the cost for Tier One Scholars is offset by the $2,000 Tier One Study Abroad Stipend.